Analyzing Twitter Flow in the Tunisian and Egyptian Uprisings
In “The Revolutions Were Tweeted: Information Flows During the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions,” Gilad Lotan, Erhardt Graeff, Mike Ananny, Devin Gaffney, Ian Pearce, and danah boyd, all of whom appear to work for private organizations like Microsoft and the Web Ecology Project, track tweets and analyze the relations between different kinds of tweet users and “patterns of sourcing and routing information among them.”
Their goal is to
describe the symbiotic relationship between media outlets and individuals and the distinct roles particular user types appear to play. Using this analysis, we discuss how Twitter plays a key role in amplifying and spreading timely information across the globe.
While both blogs and Twitter enable rapid information flow, the non-reciprocal nature of information sharing on Twitter means that it operates more like an information-sharing network than a social network, complete with well-positioned influencers who can shape how information flows.
Studies dating back to the 1950s showed that news media generally had little influence over how people voted; rather, voting decisions were socially shaped with particular people (“opinion leaders”). Following Wu et. al. (2011), the authors argue that Twitter encompasses both features.
The authors based their analysis on an extremely large database– 230,270 tweets by 60,612 users posted January 24–29, 2011, containing the keywords “egypt” or “#jan25.” They obtained this data using Twitter’ application programming interface (API) every five minutes to request the last 100 publicly posted tweets (i.e., those from accounts that are not “protected”) containing the keywords. They divided the database into “flows” based on repeated tweets. Finally, they took a smaller selection of this for detailed analysis. (They similarly gathered a Tunisian data set, but I’m not going into the Tunisian data).
When looking at the Egypt data, … MSM, journalists, and activists were much more engaged in information flows, serving as the main sources of flows …. Additionally, they drew larger participation from their audience, as measured through flow size. Meanwhile, although non-media orgs account for being the source of 5% of all flows (26 out of 500), they had the largest average size, most notably a flow started by the official WikiLeaks account, which read: “WikiLeaks did “more 4 Arab democracy than decades of backstage U.S. diplomacy.” http://bit.ly/iitGiF #egypt #tunisia.”
The authors are especially interested in what types of actors use tweets, so they identify a set of 12 actor “types,” including
- Mainstream media organizations (“MSM”): news and media organizations that have both digital and non-digital outlets (e.g., @AJEnglish, @nytimes).
- Mainstream new media organizations (“Web news orgs”): blogs, news portals, or journalistic entities that exist solely online (e.g., @HuffingtonPost).
- Non-media organizations (“non-media orgs”): groups, companies, or organizations that are not primarily news-oriented (e.g., @Vodafone, @Wikileaks).
- Mainstream media employees (“journalists”): individuals employed by MSM organizations, or who regularly work as freelancers for MSM organizations (e.g., @AndersonCooper).
- Bloggers: individuals who post regularly to an established blog, and who appear to identify as a blogger on Twitter (e.g., @gr33ndata).
- Activists: individuals who self-identify as an activist, who work at an activist organization, or who appear to be tweeting purely about activist topics to capture the attention of others (e.g., @Ghonim).
- Digerati: individuals who have worldwide influence in social media circles and are, thus, widely followed on Twitter (e.g., @TimOReilly).
- Political actors: individuals who are known primarily for their relationship to government (e.g., @Diego_Arria, @JeanMarcAyrault).
- Celebrities (“celebs”): individuals who are famous for reasons unrelated to technology, politics, or activism (e.g., @Alyssa_Milano).
- Researchers: an individual who is affiliated with a university or think-tank and whose expertise seems to be focused on Middle East issues (e.g., @JRICole).
- Bots: accounts that appears to be an automated service tweeting consistent content, usually in extraordinary volumes (e.g., @toptweets).
- Other: accounts that do not clearly fit into any category.
They were then able to look at which types of actors produced tweets that were most commonly retweeted as part of a flow. The actor who “founds” a flow (by tweeting and having his post retweeted and commented on) is identified as an opinion-maker.
They found that journalists are the most common tweet flow creators, followed by activists. Journalists appear to have a strong preference for retweeting other journalists’ content over content from other actor types. Journalists covering Egypt retweeted other journalists at a substantially higher rate than any other actor types, while in Tunisia, journalists also heavily retweeted activists.
Bloggers seem to have played an important role in the Egyptian uprising; at least, content was retweeted substantially less often in the Tunisia dataset than in the Egypt data set, “suggesting an important and distinct role played by bloggers in disseminating information to journalists during the Egyptian demonstrations.”
On the basis of these findings, they argue that “news on Twitter is being co-constructed by bloggers and activists alongside journalists. This confirms the notion that Twitter supports distributed conversation among participants” and that journalism, in this era of social media, has become part of the conversation.
The authors acknowledge that their study raises more questions than it answers, among them:
- Who controls the Twitter accounts of individual journalists?
- Are such accounts, in fact, simply differently branded organizational accounts with little connection to a particular journalist?
- Are they strategic instruments used by news organizations to convey an impression of personalization?
- And if such accounts often attempt to link readers and retweeters back to organizational news sites, are they simply tools for driving traffic, as opposed to means of providing the kind of individual interpretation that has long existed in journalism, but is rarely openly acknowledged?
- More work is needed to better understand how information flows among sources. How does information cross linguistic barriers? What are the relationships between regional and global actors?
- To what degree are journalists or news agencies consuming tweets and incorporating that knowledge into articles without retweeting the messages?
- Which tweets are actually read by followers, or seen as most valuable?
- How are different actors viewed in terms of their trustworthiness and accountability?
These six authors were among more than 30 communications scholars have contributed papers to a special issue of the International Journal of Communication focused on the role of information and communication technologies in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
This is actually one of the more substantive papers, although I find the authors’ ability to arbitrarily assign a role to Twitterers who fell into multiple categories (journalist-blogger-actiist, for example).
BTW, if you were wondering, my rendering of one of the authors’ names above is not a typo. Like e.e. cummings, danah boyd does not capitalize the initial letters of her name, even in her blog.